The gubernatorial race that sealed the Democrats' doom
In July 1992, a Texas Monthly
cover story touted then-Governor Ann Richards as presidential material. At a time when Democrats thought they’d conceded the 1992 presidential election by nominating a scandal-plagued former Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton, many serious politicos saw Richards as the party’s best hope for 1996. According to the article, the “Draft Ann” movement included comedian Bill Cosby, who phoned Richards and urged her to make a White House run.
Two years later, Richards’s political career came to an abrupt end when George W. Bush, son of the man she’d ridiculed at the 1988 Democratic Convention for being “born with a silver foot in his mouth,” unseated her as governor of Texas. Bush’s victory avenged his family, but more importantly, it put his own presidential aspirations on the fast track.
In a sense, Richards’s defeat made no sense. During her four years in office, polls consistently showed her to be popular with Texas voters. She earned good grades for her efforts to reform the state prison system and bring equity to school financing, and her natural flamboyance — sky-high white bouffant, fondness for motorcycles, and seemingly bottomless well of homespun one-liners — made her the state’s biggest media darling since Willie Nelson.
A number of rationalizations have been offered for her loss: Male chauvinism, resentment of her gun-control policies, her apparent reference to Bush as “some jerk,” or a general overconfidence on the part of Richards and her campaign workers.
No single answer suffices, but there is little evidence that the politically savvy Richards took Bush too lightly. Cathy Bonner, a Richards campaign consultant in ’94, told Texas Monthly
in 2004 that the governor “knew from the day Bush targeted this race that he would probably win.”
Bush, with his famous pedigree and aw-shucks manner, offered the perfect package for a popular message, but ultimately it was the message (heavy on tort and education reform) that carried the day. Texas had been moving to the right since the late 1970s, and the growth of affluent suburbs had transformed the GOP’s power base.
“Bush was so popular and bipartisan that he cemented the shift of rural Texas from Democrat to Republican,” says Paul Burka, Texas Monthly
’s veteran political reporter. “After 1994, the Democrats had no one in statewide office with much of a political future.”
It’s easy to forget now, but Richards’s win in 1990 was something of an aberration. Clayton Williams, the wealthy but gaffe-prone Republican nominee, had the race in the bag until he began spewing a string of idiocies, such as his infamous observation that “bad weather is like rape: if it’s inevitable, you might as well relax and enjoy it.” It’s fair to say that Richards didn’t win the 1990 election; Williams lost it.
Bush would hand Richards no such political gifts in 1994, and her rejection at the polls now looks like a historical inevitability. A Republican tide swept the country that year, with Newt Gingrich and his Contract With America spearheading a Republican takeover of Congress. And in New York, Mario Cuomo — a three-term governor and one of the leading lights of the Democratic Party — was summarily shown the door. Soon afterward, Cuomo and Richards would appear together in a Doritos commercial and settle into the quiet frustration of political retirement.